Saturday, 31 January 2015

This was January 2015

January was about:
Signs of spring
Vanilla chai tea
Vehicle repairs
Peats on the fire
New printer
Making cocktails with my sister
A return to healthy eating
Weird mushooms
Jigsaws taking over the living room floor
Planning the next 11 months

Short stories written: 6
Short stories submitted (comps): 3
Short stories submitted (mags): 3
Competitions won: 0
Runner up: 0
Shortlisted: 1
Acceptances: 0
Returns: 0
How was your January?

Thursday, 29 January 2015

January Reading

We are all Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler
I’m possibly the last person in the world to read this book, but it kind of fell to the back of my Kindle and I forgot about it until recently. It’s billed as a family tale with a twist so it sounded like my sort of story.

The narrator is Rosemary, a student who has had a somewhat unconventional home life and who is trying to come to terms with the separate disappearances of her brother and sister. The story focuses primarily on her relationship with her sister, Fern, as Rosemary tries to untangle just what happened to Fern.

The twist occurs quarter-way through and really did throw me. It made for an interesting read, although I didn’t warm to Rosemary. I did warm to Fern, despite her faults and the fact she only appeared in backstory, and I desperately wanted to know what had happened to her. The scene when Rosemary recalls an incident between her and Fern down by the river, brought tears to my eyes – the sheer naivety and cruelty of them both (plus the fact I’m an animal lover!) was really quite heart breaking. A good read – once I got into it, I really wanted to know where Fern had gone, and whether she was alright. (If you haven’t read this already, avoid spoilers. The twist really is bizarre).

Falling and Laughing: The Restoration of Edwyn Collins - Grace Maxwell
In late 2014, I was pretty much devouring books - fiction or fact - about brain trauma and injury. My boss lent me this one, which I hadn't even heard of before. It's written by Edwyn Collin's partner and chronicles his recovery from two hemorrhagic strokes.

I don't think you need to be a fan of Edwyn's music to appreciate the book, nor do you need to have had experience of anything similar. If you have experience of time in an NHS hospital, a lot of this will sound familiar - Adam didn't read it but I read a few bits aloud to him because they were so similar to our own experiences. I would say though, that if we hadn't been through it, I may have thought that some events were exaggerated, but I can honestly say I believe they're all true.

It's funny in places, desperately moving in others. You know from the offset that Edwyn will recover but there are moments where it seems so unlikely that its hard to believe. It was also a stark reminder of how lucky Adam actually is. I mean seriously. We've had dark moments, but on the whole we've got off lightly. I don't know where Grace found the strength, and I could identify so closely with her that I was quite upset at some parts.

As a bonus, I did enjoy reading about the 80s and early 90's music scenes at the start of the book, and I loved the fact that Caithness is mentioned on a couple of occasions (our humble county doesn't appear in literature often - but Edwyn's grandparents lived just outside Caithness and he still owns their house as a holiday home). A heartbreaking and gripping book that I struggled to put down.

11:22:63 - Stephen King
There are two bad things about every Stephen King book. (A) They're so wonderful that they make me doubt my abilities as a writer; and (B) my life is put on hold until I finish it. And this was no exception. At 740 pages its not a quick read, but once it gets going its impossible to put down.

Jake Epping is a High School teacher who gets the chance to go back in time and stop the assassination of JFK. It really is an exceptional story in that so much goes on, plus the fact its based on true facts and history which means he must have done a crazy amount of research. Jake is, like most King protagonists, a likeable ordinary guy who gets roped into something that perhaps he really would rather not be involved in, and really tries to do everything right.

The tension builds nicely, and poor Jake comes under increasing pressure to overcome the obturate nature of the past and do what he set out to do. I don't know a huge amount about the JFK assassination so in a sense this was a lesson in history too as it delves into Lee Harvey Oswald's background and why he did what he did. I couldn't imagine how the book would end but it came to what I felt was a satisfactory conclusion.

Not King's best book in my opinion, and I do suspect it could have been cut down a bit without losing the essence of the story; his earlier horror stuff is brilliant, and The Stand is possibly one of my favourite books ever. But still, a good read and very much written in true King style.

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly - Sun-Mi Hwang
I needed an antidote after the mighty 11:22:63 so this little ditty at just 134 pages long was perfect, and I read it in an evening. It's a sweet Korean tale about Sprout, a caged hen who can no longer lay eggs and who dreams escaping to the yard and sitting on an egg until it hatches. She's such a kind and plucky little character that I couldn't help but warm to her.

Its hard not to give the plot away as its so short but lets just say that Sprout escapes and learns a lot in the process. That dreams sometimes don't live up to what you'd expect; that freedom can be dangerous; that people can be nasty, especially to folk that are different to them; that there is no greater feeling than love. There's a lot of different creature characters (friendly Straggler the mallard, the cocky rooster, the snooty yard hen, the highly strung guard dog, the evil weasel), all of which add to Sprout's experiences of life on the outside.

There's a lo-fi, dreamy feeling to the text which made it an easy but enjoyable read, and the book is beautifully illustrated. For such a small text it packs in a load of themes - racial tension, friendship, animal husbandry, motherhood, belonging, nature, death. To me though, it was just a lovely fable with a courageous heroine and a sad but somehow hopeful ending. Might be a bit simplistic for some readers but I loved it.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Meditation (or how I learned to sit on my arse for twenty minutes and not fidget)

I've dabbled with meditation since mid-2013, when I read The Art of Mindfulness and decided to try it out. I would occasionally (when I had time and remembered!) meditate for five minutes in the morning, sitting at the top of the stairs in my house. I would count with each breath, and when I reached 70, that was usually the five minutes up.

Last year, I started making more of an effort and managed to meditate most mornings. I was never entirely sure if I was doing it right, but I was noticing subtle differences so I assumed I was along the right lines; I could think clearer; my thoughts were slower and more controlled; I noticed things more (e.g. when I was out a walk I would notice my surroundings rather than be caught up in a running commentary in my head). I've also suffered on and off with anxiety and panic attacks for years - always caused by my thoughts running amok so this was hopefully going to be a way of taming them.

Then, in August I signed up for a Mindfulness for Insight class run by Donna, who I had gone to for hypnotherapy earlier in the year. I wanted to make sure I was doing things correctly, as well as get some tips for how to improve my practice. Out of eight classes, I only attended four (one was missed due to the Killers, three due to Adam in hospital) but still I found I learned a lot from those four classes, plus the notes and DVD that accompanied all eight. Mainly, I learned that I was pretty much doing it right! My mind has a tendency to wander, and Things I Need To Do Right Now often crop up with surprising urgency, but this is fine. Meditation isn’t about stopping our thoughts, it’s about guiding our focus away from them and back into the body, hence the frequent focus on the breath.

Donna suggested that rather than count to 70, instead count to ten then start at one again, as counting to a large number often means that the mind just drifts off and keeps counting, whereas restarting when I got to 10 meant that I had to remain aware. She showed us various different meditation techniques but this is the one that resonated with me the most and is the one I tend to stick with.

Since completing the course, I’ve done an online Mindfulness course, signed up to do a Mindfulness for Wellbeing course with Donna in March, and I’ve upped my meditation time from five to twenty minutes every morning. This was a hard transition at first (I would occasionally check the time mid-way!) but now I wouldn’t be without it. On the occasional days I don’t meditate, I can feel a difference. My mind is cloudier and I’m less tolerant of life in general (I do sometimes wonder if I was like this ALL THE TIME before I started meditating? Maybe I just notice it more now?). Meditation helped ground me when Adam was in hospital, and it helps me immensely with my writing. It allows me to stop and let ideas and solutions present themselves, and it helps me slow down and appreciate the world.

It all sounds a bit airy-fairy but meditation is very much mainstream now, especially after the explosion of mindfulness over the last couple of years.

A couple of pointers:
  1. Meditation does not involve humming or chanting. It can, if that’s your thing. But it isn’t mine, I meditate in silence
  2. You don’t need to contort yourself into lotus position. I would recommend sitting up or you’ll fall asleep though. I have my own ‘version’ of lotus, or I kneel using my cushion
  3. You don’t need any fancy equipment. I have a meditation mat and cushion but only because I asked Adam to buy them for my birthday. Up until then I was happy with a regular cushion and a bath towel. If I had wanted something else for my birthday, I would have continued with them
  4. You can do it anywhere. Meditation is really just being present and very aware of your surroundings. Try it while you’re showering, doing the dishes or out for a walk
  5. It isn't for everyone. If you don't enjoy it or don't feel its doing anything for you, that's fine. Don't feel there's anything wrong with you 
Now, I’m no expert. I’m a terrible fidget and my thoughts are guaranteed to wander, so sitting on a cushion for twenty minutes every morning doesn’t come easy. If, like me, you fidget, a good trick is to get some crystals or pebbles and set them to your right hand side, then lift each one at a time and give them your full attention - how they feel, look etc, then set them down to your left. Repeat the process as required - its good for calming an over-active mind. I can see the difference meditation has made and I swear by it. I won’t outline all the benefits here, I’ll leave you to do the googling and see them for yourself. 

A couple of recommended readings:
The Art of Mindfulness - Thich Nhat Hanh
The Power of Now - Eckhart Tolle
Meditation: heart advice from 3 exceptional women on Sandra's blog. Infact her blog is a veritable mine of information about mindfulness, so have a look through her archives

Do you meditate? Have you ever tried it? 

Thursday, 15 January 2015

On Clearing Physical Clutter

image source
Having moved 8 times between 2009 and 2013, I pretty much had a handle on my possessions. I had very little furniture for a start, plus having to pack everything up on average every 6 months meant I soon thinned down what I owned. If something was being carted from house to house and never used/looked at/hung/appreciated/read/played/insert appropriate verb here, it had to go.

But I've now been in my own house for just over a year and I'm sensing that things are a bit stagnant.

I mean, I'm not over-run with possessions. I'm quite minimalist by my own way (for example, there are only 2 of us in the house so we only own 2 plates, 2 saucers, 2 bowls) and I'm not a huge buyer of stuff (although I have my weaknesses  - second hand stuff; anything that's destined for the dump and still has some life in it; house plants; books; notepads; dinosaurs). I'm relatively non-sentimental when it comes to possessions aswell, and I own just a handful of core possessions that mean something to me. Plus there are few things in life I enjoy more than a good clear-out session. Therapeutic doesn't cover it.

But still...I keep things that I never use in the hope I'll use them one day (two guitars and a sewing machine for a start). If I find something I love, I'll buy a load of them incase one gets wrecked or incase they stop making them (I have a pile of unused Paperchase eco notepads and seven pairs of black biker boots). I often shove things I don't use into cupboards and other Godforsaken places. But out of sight isn't always out of mind...

Too much stuff makes me feel heavy, disorganised. I feel up feeling obligated to clear out a drawer or rearrange a shelf rather than get on with other more exciting things in life. I don't like feeling that I'm ruled by possessions. I remember how light I felt when I moved into my last rented house. I had got rid of a load of stuff when I moved. I knew exactly what I owned and where every item in my house was.I could walk from room to room and smile at how free I felt, and how organised the house was. Even thinking about that feeling now, makes me smile. I want that feeling back.

So, I'm taking on a two-pronged attack. The first was a major purge at the start of this month. Two bags of clothes sent for recycling, three boxes of stuff for the charity shop, two boxes of stuff for selling, three bags for landfill plus various other random items for recycling. I may be clutter-free as a rule, but this is proof I can do better. My second plan (as stated in this post), is for every item I take into my home, two have to leave. Doesn't have to be like-for-like but it has to be two items and not something superficial like a cardboard box or old magazine. It has to be a home item of some sort - book, CD, clothing, ornament, kitchen item, furniture, whatever. 

There are other types of clutter too - mental; emotional; digital. But at the moment I'm focusing on the physical. Getting it under control makes it much easier to deal with the other stuff.

I love that light feeling, of not being burdened by stuff and I'm determined to keep things like this, so that I can focus my energies on other things.

Do you like a lot of clutter around you, or are you a minimalist?

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Word of the Year: Authentic

Although I’ve gone off New Year’s resolutions, I’m well and truly on the ‘Word of The Year’ bandwagon. Saying that, I’ve never blogged about it before but this hadn’t really occurred to me until I commented on Sarah’s post about her word of the year.

I came across the idea on Susannah’s blog back in 2012. Now, normally I’d turn away from something like this; I was sure it wasn’t my thing. But 2012 wasn’t great and although things had changed by the end of it, I was still trying to heal and find my place in the world again so the idea of a word of the year piqued my interest. I started writing about it in my Morning Pages, and the word AWARENESS arrived, and wouldn’t leave.

I can’t say I knew what I was becoming aware of, but over the course of the year I journalled about it a lot, and I basically became aware of myself. My spending habits, my eating habits, my reactions, my moods, my allergies, my habits, my thoughts. I became aware but didn’t allow myself to judge, and I learned a lot about myself that year. I learned that I think too much and too fast, I learned I had food intolerances, I learned I need to be in bed by 10.30pm in order to function, I learned that I took things too personally, I learned I could see both sides of the story so often ended up stuck in the middle, I learned that I need routines, I learned that lounging in the house in my pyjamas made me miserable, I learned I hated being in groups of more than 4 people, I learned that I spent a lot of time procrastinating and not a lot of time writing yet I desperately wanted to be a writer. A lot of stuff I already knew but had never given it thought, but this time I pulled them into the light. It was also the year that I took a photograph every single day; I love how this inadvertently ties in with the theme.

The process for 2014; a word popped into my head and I journalled about it. This time it was ACTION, a bit more self-explanatory. I changed my diet. I wrote every day. I sorted out my finances and recorded every single penny I spent. I sent short stories out into the world. I learned to meditate. I set up a morning routine. I went to bed at the same time every (most) nights. I completed a mindfulness course. I started a CBT course. I set up a housework routine that works for me. I got pets. I started calling myself a writer.

So, 2015. This time – AUTHENTIC (the fact that each word starts with A is of no significance). Initially, I wasn’t sure how this followed on from last year, or what it would even mean for me so I did journal exploration again, and I think its borne from a couple of things:

  1. Last year I was actually already taking steps towards this. Christmas is a good example. I normally despise Christmas but this year I made it my own and enjoyed it
  2. Adam being ill has reminded me that life’s too short for messing about and we only get this one chance to be ourselves and live the life we want. If I don’t do it now, I never will
I still need to explore this word some more and work out what it really means to me, but here are some initial musing. To me, authentic means:

  • Being true to who I am and living up to my values
  • Accepting things as they are; and if I’m not happy, take steps to change them (if I can) or change my attitude/reaction to them
  • Living my life the best way I possibly can
  • Being the best version of myself that I can be in any moment
  • Creating a life that reflects what I want it to
  • Taking responsibility for my own life and happiness
  • Not following the crowd, unless I want to
  • Standing up for what I believe in

It just seems to fit my life at the moment. And like the two words before it, I’m suddenly much more aware of it in everyday life. I’ll ask myself: Does this feel authentic? Was I authentic in that conversation? Is this something I want in my life? I’ve already spotted a couple of areas where I definitely need to make changes so it will be interesting to see how this progresses as the year goes on. I also need to brainstorm my values and work out what means the most to me in life (this will be interesting….)

Do you have a Word of the Year? Share it in the comments! Why did you choose it? What does it mean to you?

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

IWSG - New Year, Usual Insecurities

I almost forgot about IWSG - this doesn't feel like the first Wednesday of the month, how long has it been 2015? The days always seem a bit odd for the first couple of weeks in January, or maybe its just me...

Anyway, insecurities. A couple of days ago I didn't have any. I had planned my writing year; I started 2015 by winning second prize in a short story competition; I edited and typed off two short stories to send to magazines; I spent last Saturday going through the Writers and Artists Yearbook 2015 with a highlighter pen; plus I did my Morning Pages every single day in 2014, which means I wrote something every day for an entire year. I was impressed with myself.

But no matter how well things are going, the doubt is always there. I bought a couple of short story magazines yesterday, as I often do. I buy them to research the market, but I also really enjoy reading them, and its great to support other writers and spot the work of people I've met online (Patsy, I'm looking at you). But the downside is that they often leave me doubting my own work. Could I write a story as good as these? How can I break into this market when the quality of what I'm up against is so immense?

But then I need to remember that I'm still a relative newcomer. I can only get better. And I have written good stories. Some have won competitions, many have been shortlisted. There is enough to go around, no one has the monopoly on writing decent short stories.

Its only the start of 2015. And here's to a year of plenty productivity, prizes and publications - for all of us.

Any writing insecurities at the moment? Or any writing plans for 2015?

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Moving Forward into 2015....

Hogmanay 2009

I often make New Years resolutions and goals but I really can't be bothered with them this year. Most inevitably fall by the wayside, due to my short attention span and my habit of forever changing my mind about things. Who knows where life will take us anyway? I had vague plans for 2015 already but I've scrapped most of them and instead I'm going to focus on building on some habits/projects I already started in 2014 which I want to continue with. I suspect I'll find it much easier to work a bit more on something I've already started than to start something new on January 1st!

So, 2015 is looking like this:

1. Enter 3 short story competitions per month and submit a story to at least one magazine per month

2. Get that pesky draft of my novel finished

3. Reduce my plastic bottle usage. I tried this before and it wasn't a huge success but I know we go through far too many and I've already started cutting down

4. Keep my possessions under control with a 'one in, two out' rule (separate blog post about this coming soon)

5. Take more photographs. I loved doing my 365 in 2013 but due to camera issues I didn't take nearly as many in 2014. I definitely need to rectify this

All modest and all doable. Anything else that emerges in 2015 is a bonus.

I guess its also fair to say that I'm quite content with life just now and I'm not feeling the need to make any major changes or set any big, high-flying goals. That's a good thing, right?

Any plans/resolutions for the New Year?